How Does An Air Fryer Work? Here’s Everything You Need To Know

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Whether you’re a foodie, an amateur cook, or a kitchen appliance enthusiast, you’ve probably heard of an air fryer. 

This handy counter top gadget is probably one of the hottest small appliances on the market right now… but some are still in the dark about them. 

But how does an air fryer actually work? How are they different from deep fryers? And is air-fried food any better for us? That’s what we’ll talk about today!

black air fryer with open tray on white counter
Air fryers work in not-so-complicated ways!

How Do Air Fryers Work?

To be fair, the name “air fryer” can be a touch misleading. This is because air fryers don’t actually fry.

Air fryers cook with hot air similar to how food cooks in a convection oven. The air fryer has a heating element to heat the air and the fan blows it around the food very quickly.

Various foods – from meats to veggies – are placed on a tray with holes. This allows the hot air to circulate all around it – and that’s how an air fryer makes the food crispy.

By using hot circulating air, the air fryer can reduce overall cook time compared to non-convection ovens.

This shorter cooking time is also due in part to their size – a smaller sized appliance heats faster but also cooks slightly smaller portions (compared to a large toaster oven or convection oven).

To use an air fryer, this is generally how it goes: Set the time and temperature, place the food into the air fryer basket (sometimes let it preheat first), and then shake the food every few minutes (some air fryers also have an agitator that moves the food on its own).

Once your food is done, take it out of the fryer and let the air fryer cool. Once cooled off, clean the air fryer tray and other components to keep it working well! 

Air Fryer vs. Deep Fryer

Again, because of the name, air fryers often get compared to deep fryers. This isn’t perfect but the appliances do have some similarities. Here’s the breakdown of how they are the same and how they differ.

A key difference is how the food cooks – with an air fryer the food is surrounded by hot air while in a deep fryer the food is submerged in hot oil. With an air fryer, much less oil is used and often no additional oil is needed.

This has implications for both how healthy the food is after cooking and for clean up. Because of the oil, deep fryers are messier to clean up (at least in our opinion).

Another difference/limitation is that a deep fryer is only good at deep frying foods whereas an air fryer can cook vegetables and other non-frying foods as well. 

Air Fryer vs. Convection Oven

In actual fact, air fryers are just small convection ovens. Both appliances rely on a fan to circulate hot air so their biggest difference is their size. 

In an air fryer, you can usually cook food faster than in a convection oven due to their smaller sizes.

You also don’t need to heat such a big appliance which can be handy when you just want to make something small – like a portion of French fries! However, at the same time, you can usually not cook as much food at once for the same reason – size. 

On the other hand, with an air fryer you have another appliance sitting on the countertop which can occupy unnecessary space – especially if you already have a convection oven. 

Another difference is that with an air fryer, oil/drippings can usually drop through and “disappear” due to the holes in the cooking tray. With a baking sheet on a pan in a convection oven, that is not the case. 

Are Air-Fried Foods Healthy?

The answer to whether air-fried foods are healthy is: It depends. They can be, but certainly don’t have to be.

This answer really depends on a bunch of factors. One of which is what you are making. You can make lots of unhealthy snacks in air fryer – that doesn’t mean they will suddenly become “healthy”.

Traditional deep-fried foods – like mozzarella sticks – don’t just become nutritious and less calories because they are air-fried.

One factor you can control – which can impact nutrition and health – is the amount of oil you use for cooking in the air fryer. You certainly can be more intentional with the amount of oil you’re using.

For example, we have noticed that we use less oil when air frying vegetables than when roasting them in the oven. 

Do You Need To Use Oil In An Air Fryer?

The answer to this question is in many cases no. You don’t need to use oil for many foods. However, many foods – especially vegetables – will turn out crispier with a little bit of oil.

It’s also important to use a little bit of oil if you want to add seasoning to the food you plan on air frying.

If you don’t add any oil, the seasoning – even just salt and pepper – might fly around in the air fryer and get stuck on the heating element causing smoke.

What Can You Cook In An Air Fryer?

Because you are cooking with hot air and not submerging food in oil, you can cook lots of different foods in an air fryer.

Popular foods to make in the air fryer are vegetables, potatoes in various shapes and sizes such as French fries (both homemade and frozen store-bought fries) and many other finger frozen foods. A personal favorite of ours is sweet potato fries

You can also make meats, such as air fryer chicken breasts, wings, meatballs, etc. in the air fryer. You can check out our recipe index for various different air fryer recipes.

One thing that you should not cook in an air fryer is items with “wet batters”. Things with liquid batters would include homemade pancakes, freshly battered fish, or onion rings.

(One small exception to this rule is homemade buffalo cauliflower wings because the batter used is “wet” but not very runny!)

Breadings – like using bread crumbs – for fish and meats or air fryer pickles, and store-bought finger foods with coatings like pre-made chicken nuggets, etc. are generally better for the air fryer.

Are Air Fryers Worth It?

In our opinion, yes, air fryers are worth it. The food has a great flavor and is easy to prep and cook.

However, there are so many different air fryer models out there. Before you buy, it’s important to compare their features and price with other models to find one that works for you.

Also, if you already have a convection oven or a toaster oven with convection setting then purchasing an air fryer might not always be worth it. 

In general, air fryer cooking makes it faster to cook vegetables than in the oven due to their smaller size. At the same time, you can only add so much to an air fryer because overcrowding can reduce food quality.

Sometimes that means cooking in smaller batches. So, if you have lots of mouths to feed, you have to make the assessment of whether an air fryer is worth it. 

Of course, having a new trendy appliance can bring some fun back into cooking. This can be great if you’re struggling to get motivated to cook. This can be a bonus benefit but should not be the only reason for getting an air fryer!

And there you have it – a rundown on how an air fryer works. In the end, we like our air fryer and the food it produces for us as two people. They are generally easy to operate, easy to experiment in, and can last a long time with a little care!

Happy Air Fryin’,

– L+E

Portrait photo of Lisa, author of Simply Air Fryer, smiling into the camera.
Lisa is the main creator for Simply Air Fryer. As the author of two successful food blogs, she's usually found measuring ingredients, trying out new combinations, or hiding behind the camera snapping photos of food. She bought her first air fryer almost 2 years ago and has since used it over 350+ times. With the help of her trusty sidekick (husband), she's created and tested every single recipe on Simply Air Fryer.

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